Anitra Sanjeep licked her fingers, carefully finding every bit of frosting they had scraped off her plate. She started at her pinky, which had the least amount, and worked her way to the index finger, which had a good-sized glob of the most decadent, sinfully rich chocolate frosting in the universe! Well, in New York City, at least.
Anitra – or Annie, as most of her friends called her – had a sweet tooth. It had controlled her for most of her childhood, until her weight became a serious problem. With the help of her friends and family, she was out of danger from developing diabetes. At 27 years of age, she was not thin, but her weight was healthy. And whenever something extraordinary happened, she would treat herself to a slice of Sweet Surrender’s famous Tomcake. Today’s extraordinary event was one for the history books.
Today, she had been asked to go on a date – a date on Valentine’s day! There had been an old-fashioned card left on her desk at work, with her name embossed in gold letters on the envelope. The card had one of those sentimental sayings in it, with no signature. It did have a business card for Bilbo’s Bistro, a hot new club in Greenwich Village with a four-star Michelin rating and a waiting list that stretched into next year! On it was a reservation for 7:00 p.m. Annie was an LOTR fanatic, and had been dying to get inside the hobbit-themed hotspot. Who was her admirer, that he could get a reservation ahead of many Hollywood stars and political bigwigs?
She had not been dating for close to 6 years, ever since her last boyfriend had wanted to fly them both down to Venezuela to meet his parents…after their third date! She racked her brain, and tried to remember anyone – anyone – she might have flirted with. She worked as manager of an Off-Off Broadway theatre box office, so there was no end of handsome men in her circle; problem was, most of them were gay. So that left Ricky, Tad, Greg and William. Ricky was good-looking, charming and impeccably dressed, from a well-to-do family in Wall Street finance – and interested in sleeping with as many blond & brainless females as possible. Which is how he ended up employed in Off-Off Broadway. He was safe to flirt with, as she was neither blond nor brainless.
Tad was ex-military – he performed his House Managing duties with precision and finesse, and performances started on time, every time. Problems were usually glossed over or ignored or both, and found their way to her desk the next morning. But he had looks to burn and, if the way his clothes fit was any indication, a body to die for. Flirting with Tad was like flirting with a robot – senseless, but occasionally fun because it went over his head.
Greg, on the other hand, was an organizational mess – except when it came to customer service. He knew how to listen, but more importantly, he knew how to respond. He was a throwback to the old days, back when the phrase ‘the customer is always right’ actually meant something. However, Greg was a Momma’s boy, and could not make a firm decision for himself if his life depended on it. She’d flirted with him once, and regretted it ever since. Poor Greg.
Which left William. He’d been working at the theatre since July of last year. He did print and electronic advertising and public relations. At an after-show party, they had hit it off. She had discussed how the Box Office was often the only personal contact the public had with the theatre, how she would get their opinions and desires told to her on a daily basis, and she could not understand why upper management never consulted them on what would most likely appeal to the public. They’d never dated – Anitra did not approve of interoffice romance – but they’d each hinted at it, though vaguely.
William (not Will, and never Billy) was 5 years her junior. Not enough of an age difference to raise eyebrows, just enough to make conversations interesting. “How do I find out who it is?” she wondered. She had 3 days until Valentine’s Day.
No luck. William was out of town, interviewing the author of their next play – who lived in Boston. The author was female, and blond, and very possibly brainless. Perfect for Ricky, but the current Artistic Director knew enough to send William. Anitra didn’t care for the script – it was more suited for soap opera than the stage. But the woman had connections – her mother was the company’s landlady – and so the merit of her work was, well, irrelevant.
So, in the break room, she mentioned Valentine’s Day. Greg was quite clingy, and talked about how he used to get so many Valentine cards in elementary school, even though he himself never sent out any. To which Ricky replied that he responded to every card he got when he was younger – but he had not bothered with Valentine’s Day since high school, because it was stupid and over-hyped and it was never conducive to romance if you were sleeping with everyone’s best friend, anyway. Well, she thought, cross those two off the list. Which left Tad and William. That evening, she asked Tad, in her most coquettish manner yet, whom he was going to send a Valentine’s Day card to. And he responded, very matter of fact and deadpan, “My wife, of course.” And then he smiled. Before she could ask him a single question, he was about his business, checking with the stage manager for any new instructions or news. Who knew Tad was married?
Anitra decided that it was time think like James Patterson’s Detective Lindsay Boxer. The clock was ticking. What did she know for certain? She knew that (1) He knew where she worked, (2) He knew she was single, (3) He wasn’t Ricky, Greg or Tad, (4) He had to have either money or contacts or both, to have snagged a reservation at Bilbo’s Bistro. She knew William was not filthy rich or from a rich family, but he might have contacts that did.
On a hunch, she waited for the mailman, and when he arrived, asked after the invitation. Surely he would remember the gold-embossed envelope? But no, he could not recall delivering one, not in the last two years. It was only as she took the card from out of her pocketbook that she noticed the envelope had no postage, and thus, no postmark.
Oh, crap! She realized that it could really be anyone – the doorman of her apartment building, the old man who lived across the hall…even the young girl at Java Jo’s, who wore T-shirts that said things like “My girlfriend can beat up your honor student!” What would she do then?
William walked into the office, and collapsed in the big chair in front of her desk. “Annie, I swear that woman would need help reading a stop sign! I’m not kidding! Have you read her play? She makes Ted Cruz and Rick Scott seem like geniuses! I’m telling you, Annie, her lack of intelligence is astounding!”
Anitra had decided, that morning, that too much was at stake to just hint at what she wanted to know. So, she just blurted it out. “William, did you send me a Valentine’s Days invitation, for dinner at Bilbo’s Bistro?” “No, it wasn’t me. But,” he added, “It must have been that guy who showed me your photo, and wanted to know where he could leave something for you.”
“Phew,” she exhaled, “At least he wasn’t a she.”
William looked at her in astonishment. “Annie, that statement isn’t even grammatically correct, much less politically. So, Bilbo’s Bistro, huh? Wow, he must be loaded!” And he turned to exit.
“Wait a minute, you can’t just leave!”
“I can,” he said, “and I will. The Boss is waiting. Besides, I am about to be interrogated by you about every – little – detail I can remember about him. And I think, dear Annie, you should learn to deal with your fears, throw caution to the winds, and embrace the unknown.” And with that, he went upstairs.
She arrived early. There was already a line stretching around the block. She wore a simple black shoulder-less dress, and an antique black lace shawl with tiny red rosebuds. She’d had a florist accent it that night with real baby’s breath. Her long, jet black hair was unadorned, and fell freely down her back. And while she detested high heels, she wore them well. As she made her way to the hostess, she smiled. Many of the staff were hobbit-sized. Of course, it was supposed to feel as though you were inside an enormous tree.
She hadn’t known what to expect. Maybe it was all a big joke. Maybe the reservation was under his name, without her name being listed. Maybe there was no reservation at all. Her fears were groundless, as she was led to the table for two – a table set inside a tree trunk – in the center of the room. This was the table where Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart sat at for the Bistro’s Grand Opening.
“There must be some mistake!” she said, feeling her nervousness grow with each minute. The hostess assure her that no, this was her table, and that her partner had called, but would be a little late. She was also told to order a drink and whatever else she’d like.
“What would you recommend?”
“How do you like your drink? Sweet, sour, light? Dark, without a kick, or…”
“Strong. With a gentle kick.”
A few minutes later a hobbit-sized barback brought the drink to her, and with an accomplished flourish set down a stein and a figurine, and announced, “One Bill’s Brew! And a memorial figurine, courtesy of Bilbo himself if you can remember the name of Samwise’s favorite pack animal!” The name was Bill, of course, but the diners all burst into applause as she said it. She took a sip of her drink, and was about to settle in her chair when she started to feel warm all over. It had, as promised, a gentle kick. She was, she decided, embarrassingly overdressed. While she certainly wasn’t the only one in evening attire, the patrons were dressed in a mélange of styles, from casual to costume and everywhere in-between. Two entire walls were huge projections screens, on which was playing THE HOBBIT.
A tap on her shoulder startled her. She turned to her right, but no one stood there. “You look amazing!” said a male voice. Startled yet again, she froze for an instant. It was not a familiar voice. She was tempted to stand up and leave, without ever looking. Embrace the unknown, she thought.
Sitting opposite her was a tall man, looking a little out of place in this hobbit hole. He was rugged, with a moustache, and a beard whose edges appeared to have been trimmed with a knife, so sharply defined were they. His skin was tanned, which made his sun-bleached blond hair glow against it. And he looked damn fine in a tuxedo. A red tuxedo, a flawlessly pressed white shirt, and a pink bow tie and cummerbund. Not knowing if Bill’s Brew was kicking in full-force, or that she was just feeling less overdressed, Anitra smiled. His eyes were bright blue.
Somewhere inside her head, those eyes found a face, and memory kicked in. She knew his man. She had felt a connection, but didn’t pursue it, because of her now ex-boyfriend, who was emotionally unstable then and liable to do one, or both of them, harm. He saw what she was thinking, and smiled.
“So, you remember me!” he signed.
“How could I forget my favorite conversation partner in American Sign Language class? I’ll never forget Professor Hardison trying to convince us that it would be faster to discuss Romeo & Juliet rather than The Lord Of The Rings!” Anitra laughed.
“I remember when he found out about the Facebook LOTR Deaf Fan Club! And that they had a lexicon for all the character and place names,“ he recalled.
“So, Pete Jiminez, what have you been doing for the past six years?” Anitra began to relax for the first time in days.
“Now, Anitra Sanjeep, there is a question I hoped you would never have to ask. After you refused to be my girlfriend, and for good reason, I went to Paris where, although I did not fall madly in love, I did study at Le Cordon Bleu, and apprenticed as a pastry chef all over Europe. I have worked at Sweet Surrender for the past 8 months. “ Pete paused.
“I know the place,” said Anitra, with amazement. “Why did you not come out and say hello?”
“I felt that maybe you were still with that awful man. Because, if you were, then I would have to say some harsh things to you, and risk losing you as a friend. But you aren’t. It was then that a friend told me what he knew about you, and through his network of friends found out more. And with his help, here we both are. He owns this place.”
Dinner was superb. Anitra had forgotten how easy it was to talk to Pete, and how wonderful it felt to simply be around him. Finally she asked about dessert. “Our waitress has not brought the dessert menus. You work making sweets all day, so I could forgive you if you want to skip it,” she said.
“Ah, let me explain. I was going to bring you the Tomcake, which I know you love. But because it was Valentine’s Day, and we were soooo busy, I forgot to put aside a piece. And when it was time to close, all the Tomcakes were gone. The owner suggested I make one right then, but it appears we did not have enough cocoa powder. Now you know why I was late. I had to create something for you.”
Annie was at a loss for words. No one had ever done something so – personal – for her. “So what is it?”
“I will show you, but you must answer my original request!”
“Which was what?” she prompted.
“Be My Valentine!”
It’s been six years, she thought. Deep Breath. It’s just a date. One date. Did being his Valentine today mean more of them? She hoped so.
He leaned over the table, gave her cheek a sweet kiss, and motioned to the waitress, who brought out two small boxes, the size of her hands. Carefully, he began unwrapping one of them. “It has been a running joke in the store that, since you are the one person that I talk about, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I give to you, Valentine Annie, my heart on a slice.”
Inside the box was a slice of cake that looked like a Tomcake, but made with lemon cake and a citrus ganache. In the center was a red chocolate heart, almost 3 inches high by 3 inches wide. “It is blood orange chocolate, my own invention, flecked with lime and lemon zest. I…”
“Shut up and grab a fork, Valentine,” laughed Anitra. “What’s in the second box?”
Pete winked. “The other piece, for tomorrow’s celebration of extraordinary things!”
“This one,” she thought, “is a keeper!”